I f you have never heard the haunting melodies of an old Virginia folk ballad, you are missing the heart of what makes the commonwealth unique. Living in Colonial Williamsburg, William and Mary students are given a liberal dose of American history, but most of the music heard here evokes British courts and European sentiments. A small community of musicians, however, focuses on the music of Appalachia right here in our backyard. Elizabeth LaPrelle ’09 is one of these musicians, celebrating the rich heritage Virginia has to offer through her voice.
LaPrelle grew up in southwestern Virginia, where traditional mountain music is performed in festivals and competitions. As a young girl, she was involved in many different talent shows where she would perform in front of audiences. She is not the only musician in her family. Her mother sings backup vocals on many of LaPrelle’s recordings, and her aunt and uncle play instruments on her recordings as well. Her family has supported her continuously, from taking her to festivals and concerts to performing with her onstage and on her CDs.
“I have a very musical family,” says LaPrelle. “When I first started getting into traditional folk music and ballads, they really supported me and helped me to find material. Later they played and sang alongside me.”
Since most ballads and traditional mountain songs are performed in the oral tradition and not recorded, it is sometimes difficult to find new material. LaPrelle enlists her family to help with suggestions, but finds most of the music herself through recommendations and research.
“The more I listen to traditional music, the more I find,” says LaPrelle. “There’s so much more out there than I ever expected, but the more you hear it, the more you hear that there is. I listen to recordings when I can find them, but there’s a really great community that’s sort of built around old-time music. There are these wonderful musicians who pick really obscure tunes and play them for their friends.”
LaPrelle released her first album, Rain and Snow, when she was 16 years old. Her second album, Lizard In the Spring, was released when she was 19. It is not surprising that during her time at William and Mary she remained highly involved in her Appalachian singing roots.
“While at William and Mary, I crafted my own major: Southern Appalachian Traditional Performance. I basically did all of the artsy things I could,” she says. “I love theater, so I took some of that, a lot of music, some anthropology, American studies and literature. I came to William and Mary because I wanted liberal arts and that’s exactly what I got.”
While at the College, she kept up going to gigs, even taking a semester off to go on tour to the West Coast with a group of musicians from her area. Expanding into areas other than personal performance, LaPrelle also organized a concert and some workshops showcasing a band from her hometown to teach students about traditional Appalachian music.
“A lot of what fascinates me about the traditional music is the history behind it,” says LaPrelle. “I wanted my College experience here to reflect that.”
In the traditional music world, concerts are not all that common. Instead, musicians meet and listen to music at festivals, conventions and competitions. These gatherings take place all over Southwestern Virginia and North Carolina and usually occur during the summer months. Even though many people show up at these events, the community is a small one and people come just as often to see friends as to hear good music.
When she is not touring or performing, LaPrelle teaches workshops to aspiring musicians in the area and works on her albums. Her newest album, Birds’ Advice, is set to be released by spring 2011. LaPrelle will also perform in Vorheesville, N.Y., the weekend of May 12 at the Ballad Singers’ Summit Workshop.
Listening to her beautiful interpretations of old mountain music is mesmerizing. Her unique voice captures something of the misty Virginia mountains and the people who lived there.
— Alexandra Hart ’11
For more information, visit LaPrelle’s website at www.old97wrecords.com/elizabeth-laprelle/index.htm